Jan 202014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Their Holiday Praise and Ours
Today is the Martin Luther King Jr holiday, a day off for public schools, nonessential public sector workers, and most covered by union contracts.

It is a unique commemoration, enacted only after tenacious popular demand overcame dogged resistance. While the scale of observance is on a par with “minor” holidays honoring Presidents, veterans, and “discoverers,” this one hails one of the greatest leaders of the centuries long–and still far from completed–self-liberation struggle by African-Americans.

While the Black civil rights movement propelled him in to national and international prominence, and remained his central focus, Dr King recognized the importance of allies of different skin pigment as well–and not just well-to-do white liberals who raised funds for the movement. This Nobel laureate also worked to create a multi-colored Poor People’s Campaign as well as collaborating with trade unionists and the movement against the Vietnam war.

Both Dr King, and another Black clergyman of a different faith and different strategy–Malcolm X–alarmed the Establishment of their time. The FBI not only spied on them but also circulated slander about their character and infiltrated provocateurs in to the civil rights and Black nationalist movements. Both great leaders were assassinated. Those movements have not yet fully recovered from that loss.

As mortality shrinks the living memory of Dr King’s movement, today’s Establishment cynically places him on an iconic pedestal, an acceptable Black hero piously preaching placid peace.

But Dr King’s nonviolent mass resistance to racism and exploitation was hardly peace. While he deplored all forms of violence he adopted, in his own way, the spirit of the message scrawled on the walls of the oppressed everywhere–No Justice, No Peace.

Let’s use this day to reclaim the genuine heritage of the man whose life was taken while organizing solidarity with striking sanitation workers. Let’s teach our youth to revere not a saint but a fighter in the cause of justice for all working people.

We hear a lot about the need for transparency. But those who keep track of such things have noted a steep reduction in mainstream media coverage of environmental issues, especially climate change. Yahoo News used to have a Green page with several new articles every day from such good sources as AFP–but no more. Climate was one of the prime cuts at the incredible shrinking BBC. Few major U.S. papers have an environment desk.

On the other hand, the global warming denier talking heads still have free reign on Fox News and CNN.  Laced with hearty jokes, they explained how the recent plunge of the Polar Vortex, bringing extreme cold to all of Canada and much of the USA, was the final nail in the coffin of a global warming scam conjured up by money-grubbing climate scientists.

Of course, as every high school Freshman knows these days, global warming refers to a rise in the average temperature of our entire planet. Across the 197 million square miles of Earth’s land and water surface some areas will become cooler as others warm up. This process can influence extreme weather events such as the rare descent of the Polar Vortex in to southern latitudes–as well as the life threatening heat wave that just disrupted the Australia tennis Open.

Still, it must be admitted that the cable network science deniers are having at least a temporary influence on some of the insecure who would like to have reason to deny. The polls show an incremental dip in American public acceptance of climate science.

The Polar Vortex has not been a big problem in California. But the always unpleasant Santa Anna Winds off the desert are hotter and fiercer in areas of extreme drought. The Governor has in fact declared the entire state to be in a drought emergency. Wild fires are again a threat in wooded hills and farmers are reluctant to plant in the arid valleys. Not much mirthful denial there.

The prospects for the entire Pacific basin are not good. Becky Oskin opens a Live Science article,

“The most intense El Niño events may soon hit every 10 years, instead of every 20 years, thanks to warming water in the eastern Pacific Ocean, a new study predicts. An El Niño is the warm phase of a long-standing natural climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean. When changing wind patterns start piling up warm water in the eastern part of the equatorial Pacific, the redistribution of hotter water triggers changes in atmospheric circulation that influences rainfall and storm patterns around the world — an El Niño.”

Nearly all major news outlets in the USA are plugged in to the Associated Press. But it was only in the British-based Guardian that I found an AP dispatch that began,

“Delaying action on global warming will only increase the costs and reduce the options for dealing with its worst effects, according to a draft report by UN experts. The final draft of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global warming will continue to increase unless countries shift quickly to clean energy and cut emissions.”

The New York Times did carry an article of their own about the UN draft report which started out,

“Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, experts found.”

That’s good to know but even in the Times it wasn’t the lead story of the day–that was Governor Christie’s “bridgegate.”

Many environmental activists have looked to Europe, where there is much greater public understanding of the climate crisis, for inspiration. But the German newsweekly der Spiegel shows those laurels are not fit for resting,

“The EU’s reputation as a model of environmental responsibility may soon be history. The European Commission wants to forgo ambitious climate protection goals and pave the way for fracking — jeopardizing Germany’s touted energy revolution in the process.”

Some environmental disasters can’t be ignored by the media. When hundreds of thousands in West Virginia lost access to safe drinking water due to a chemical leak the Fourth Estate was all over the human interest story like a cheap suit. Little attention was paid to the responsibility for the calamity and when the authorities gave the all clear to use the water again the editors called roving reporters home.

The assurances by the private water company that health danger had been averted was based more on faith and hope than empirical verification. While I share the hope the Center for Disease Control cautioned that there have never been any extensive studies on the health effects of human exposure to the leaked chemical, MCHM, much less any meaningful exposure limits. The fifteen page Material Safety Data Sheet supplied by the manufacturer has 152 entries showing “no data available.”

Some reporters were allowed to dig deeper in to how an ancillary of the coal industry–which has now filed for bankruptcy–inadvertently created a disaster of a scale that terrorists could only dream. The answer was not really hidden. West Virginia is the heart of coal country and  the state government doesn’t like to intrude in its business with a lot of regulations and inspections.

Coral Davenport and Ashley Southall began a New York Times story,

“Last week’s major chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River, which cut off water to more than 300,000 people, came in a state with a long and troubled history of regulating the coal and chemical companies that form the heart of its economy. ‘We can’t just point a single finger at this company,’ said Angela Rosser, the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. ‘We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.’ She said lawmakers have yet to explain why the storage facility was allowed to sit on the river and so close to a water treatment plant that is the largest in the state.”

At one time the coal industry could claim to be a job creator in West Virginia. Those days are long gone. Since the 1970s new technology such as longwall boring eliminated many jobs. More recently new environmental destruction known as mountain top removal has slashed jobs even more. They use explosives to literally blow the tops off mountains to turn them in to open pit mines for easy scooping of the coal beneath. The United Mineworkers Union has far more retiree members than working miners.

If the coal industry was completely shut down in West Virginia–as it ultimately must to meet the challenge of climate change–present coal industry workers and their children could be given a life time of work just remediating the environmental damage to Appalachia–and that’s exactly what society should do.

The WIR and our companion news blog Labor Advocate, will continue to bring the hard to find stories about the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced to our readers. We need to know the truth–and we need to act.

In April hundreds of labor activists will gather in Chicago for the biannual Labor Notes Conference. This could be a good opportunity for starting to integrate the issue of climate action  in to the perspective of the vanguard of class action. The two will rise or fall together.

That’s all for this week.
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Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Jan 122014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

 Go Figure
As I delivered Mary’s wake-up coffee to her bedside table Friday morning the erudite modulation of NPR was coming, as always, from the alarm clock radio. A journalist and an expert  were speculating about how good a news to expect from the BLS Employment Situation report due to be released in fifteen minutes. They seemed sure it would tell of at least 200,000 or so new jobs. I appreciated the heads-up–but still logged on later to read the December summary myself.

The headline turned out to be “December unemployment rate declines (6.7%); payroll employment edges up (+74,000)” While 6.7 is the lowest rate since 2008 only two categories–men and whites–actually gained. All others remained stagnant, some at very high levels–teens at 20.2 percent, Blacks 11.9, Latinos 8.3. The government was no help–there was a net loss of 11,000 public sector jobs in December.

I’ve always emphasized what some call “real” unemployment–a combination of the official unemployment numbers with those involuntarily working part-time, and workers “marginally attached to the workforce.” This measure indicates there are still 20.4 million who want full-time jobs and can’t find one. That’s down from once as high as 25 million.

But increasingly disturbing is a decline in the percentage of the population sixteen and older,  not incarcerated or confined to nursing homes, who are either working or looking for work. This participation rate now stands at 62.8 percent–the lowest since the first year of the Carter administration. This shrinking pool of active job seekers has been a bigger factor than new jobs added in bringing down the official unemployment rate. Many jobless have simply given up.

What’s happening to these drop-outs and left-outs during “recovery?” Their stories are many and varied. There’s been a big uptick in age 62 applications for Social Security even though this means a substantial “early” retirement penalty in monthly benefit. Households that formerly had two bread-winners now reluctantly make do with stay-at-home moms or dads who would prefer to be working. Adult children move in with their parents–and vice-versa. Many are going to college or trade school in hopes this will lead to future employment–in the meantime racking up big student loan debts. Still others will be found in homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

This bleak year-end BLS report comes as the media looks at the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty. He did introduce some useful social benefits–now under menacing bipartisan attack. Of course, LBJ also took care of youth unemployment by sending hundreds of thousands of my generation who couldn’t get college deferments off to what turned in to nine years of war in Vietnam. 58,286 GIs never made it back alive. Many who did returned with physical and psychological debilitations, sometimes also addicted to illegal drugs. Those veterans have been shamefully neglected.

The War on Poverty has been no more successful in its nominal objectives than Johnson and Nixon were with their imperial goals in Southeast Asia. In a perceptive New York Times article Annie Lowery writes,

“…high rates of poverty — measured by both the official government yardstick and the alternatives that many economists prefer — have remained a remarkably persistent feature of American society. About four in 10 Black children live in poverty; for Hispanic children, that figure is about three in 10. According to one recent study, as of mid-2011, in any given month, 1.7 million households were living on cash income of less than $2 a person a day, with the prevalence of the kind of deep poverty commonly associated with developing nations increasing since the mid-1990s.”

The mid-1990s benchmark mentioned by Lowrey refers to labor’s “friend” Bill Clinton’s gutting of “welfare as we know it.” This was accompanied by his driving through NAFTA that simultaneously facilitated shipping jobs from U.S. plants to Mexico while wrecking the traditional Mexican economy–leading to a new wave of immigrants who could be super-exploited  in low wage jobs in the USA. Labor’s pal in the White House today is hoping to leave a similar legacy with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, for which he is now seeking Fast Track.

More from Lowery,

“The more important driver of the still-high poverty rate, researchers said, is the poor state of the labor market for low-wage workers and spiraling inequality. Over the last 30 years, growth has generally failed to translate into income gains for workers — even as the American labor force has become better educated and more skilled. About 40 percent of low-wage workers have attended or completed college, and 80 percent have completed high school.”

The BLS December report shows the average hourly wage of private sector production and nonsupervisory workers rose three cents to 20.35. But new hires at even such unionized and highly profitable companies as the Big Three automakers, General Electric, and Boeing mostly start at 12-14 dollars an hour.

While there has been some modest growth in manufacturing the big “job creators” are in retail.  An article on the Al Jazeera site tells us,

“Of the paltry number of jobs added, more than half (some 55,000) were in the retail sector. But even with gains in that sphere — especially the food service industry, which continues to regularly add jobs in the economy — recent reports suggest that mere employment in those industries is no guarantee of economic well-being. For example, a recent analysis indicated that more than half of fast-food workers rely on public assistance, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average annual salary for a retail worker was just over $20,000 per year, below the federal poverty line of $23,492 for a family of four. The disappointing jobs numbers are part of a longer-term trend of wage stagnation in the country. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the strength of wages has declined in the last decade and a half, with the median wage in the U.S. at its lowest point since 1998.”

Of course, even retail employment is not fully secure. After reporting a 3.6 percent increase in holiday season sales, Macy’s announced last week they are closing a number of “underperforming” stores and laying off 2500 workers.

The ruling class that controls both economy and government have shown no signs of letting up in their ruthless pursuit of getting more work out of the existing workforce, demanding givebacks in wages and benefits, inflating prices of food, fuel, housing, and health care, shifting more of the tax burden on the working class–and maintaining a reserve army of unemployed to discourage troublemakers on the job. Until this offensive in the class war is  defeated we shouldn’t expect jobs reports encouraging to our side. As even unemployment compensation and food stamps are slashed we will see more poverty, not less.

….But Not A Drop To Drink
A small part of my wife’s work as Erio Consulting deals with spill control plans. Companies with outside storage tanks are often legally required to surround them with a containment area to prevent any spills or leaks contaminating soil or ground water. They come to Mary with a plan and she often has to make revisions. Once it’s right she embosses it with a really cool P.E. (Professional Engineer) stamp. In so doing she puts her professional integrity–and pricey liability insurance–on the line.

But that practice is not universally implemented. Ken Ward Jr reported in the Charleston Gazette,

“When West Virginia inspectors arrived at Freedom Industries late Thursday morning, they discovered that the company had taken ‘no spill containment measures’ to combat the chemical spill that has put drinking water supplies off-limits for hundreds of thousands of residents. The state Department of Environmental Protection said Freedom Industries violated West Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act by allowing the chemical ‘Crude MCHM,’ consisting mostly of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, to escape from its facility, just upstream from West Virginia American Water’s regional intake in the Elk River.”

The spill, now estimated to be 7500 gallons, quickly got in to Charleston’s drinking water, creating a disturbing color change and releasing a strange odor.

The chemical is a foaming agent used in washing dirt from mined coal. Contact or ingestion will not likely be fatal but can be a serious irritant and some have been hospitalized. While Freedom stonewalled, water company authorities quickly and properly warned the public not to use their product to drink, bathe, or wash clothes or dishes. Three hundred thousand people have been without access to potable tap water since Thursday. Hotels emptied, restaurants closed and airline crews were shuttled to accommodations forty miles away. The state legislature had to adjourn. For a couple of days bottled water became as scarce as Johnny Walker Blue. It’s expected to be at least several more days before normal water service is restored. 

The culpable culprit corporate entity Freedom Industries has existed for less than two weeks. The players in the recent merger that created Freedom have a checkered past in West Virginia and elsewhere. But they had little trouble becoming a Free Enterprise guardian of the environment in the heart of coal country.

Controlling the Explosion
Following up on last week’s WIR: There was yet another fiery derailment of rail cars carrying volatile Bakken oil. On Tuesday, nineteen of 122 cars of a Canadian National train hauling butane, propane and other goods as well as oil, left the track near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick–and ignited two fires.

There was concern these fires could spread to other fuel cars still on track. 150 residents within a couple of miles were evacuated. Experts in oil and chemical spill fires were flown in from Louisiana and went to work containing and speeding up the oil fires with strategically placed  explosive charges. By Saturday the fires were out and the tracks were put back in service. Residents were allowed back in their homes but can’t yet use their tap water because of possible spill contamination. They are being supplied with bottled water.

Inspectors from the Transport Safety Board of Canada reported,

“Investigators found a cracked wheel on a car near the front of the train. This wheel moved on the axle and lost track gauge, resulting in the derailment of that wheel set. There was also a broken rail.”

Seventeen additional broken rails were found in a ten-mile stretch before the derailment site.

Like the North Dakota accident a week earlier, it was fortunate there were no fatalities or serious injuries. But we can’t count on that luck holding out since North American railroads clearly can’t safely transport this dangerous cargo.

There have been a number of good articles about the Boeing contract that has been a focus in the WIR but I think the best was written by Ann Montague on the Socialist Action site.

That’s all for this week.

Free digital subscription to the Week In Review is available through RSS and Yahoo Group Mail.

Our sole source of income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member